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Survivors in solidarity

By Ellen Ashton-Haiste

Breast-cancer survivors are meeting the challenge to further the cause of funding research and support programs, and finding fitness and companionship along the way


Florianne Yeung never dreamed that she would develop a passion for racing a 12-metre boat with 19 other paddlers, a steerswoman and a drummer.

Joanna Chrystal never thought she would be passionate about her weekly runs through Toronto’s High Park.

But that was before breast cancer.

If dealing with a frightening cancer diagnosis is challenging, coping with life after cancer is equally so.
Women who have taken that journey find support in many different ways. For Yeung, that was dragon boating. Since the first dragon-boat teams of breast-cancer survivors emerged in the mid-nineties, the phenomenon has spread worldwide.

“I would never have thought I would be so passionate about it,” says Yeung. “We practise three times a week and I so look forward to getting together with my teammates on the water, looking at the beautiful sunsets (and realizing) life is beautiful after cancer. You enjoy life, you appreciate life, every little moment.”

She also values the camaraderie. “It’s teamwork. We paddle hard and we compare it, sometimes, with fighting the dragon. When we win, it’s symbolic. We win at the end of the battle.”

Diagnosed in 1999, Yeung experienced a recurrence and resultant mastectomy in 2005. “It was traumatic,” she says. “Had I not been in Dragons Abreast (the Toronto team), I would have found it very, very difficult to go through.”

Chrystal is also a dragon boater, but discovered running through a Running Room training program for breast-cancer survivors, aimed at preparing them for the annual Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run For The Cure.

“It was awesome,” Chrystal says. “We ran for the cure and then we trained to do a half marathon. We did the one in Ottawa.”

She says running has been an important element of dealing with her breast cancer. First diagnosed in 1998, the now-69-year-old experienced bone metastases in 2002 and is currently in treatment for thoracic cancer.

“I run in High Park and it’s my time to talk to myself,” she explains. “It’s beautiful. I try to solve all my problems when I’m running, whether I’m crying, laughing or thinking about life. Between running and dragon boating, they’ve saved my life.”

When Peg Hurley was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago at age 31, there weren’t the support networks that exist today.

The Windsor resident stumbled into dragon boating about a decade later and “got hooked.” Today, she’s a national representative for central and western Ontario with the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission.

“We all become family,” she says of the teams. “And our families become everybody else’s family. It’s a bond that’s very tight.”

Here’s five ways survivors and advocates challenge themselves and other to raise awareness and funds.

1.    Dragon Boating

The benefits of dragon boating were promoted in 1996 by Vancouver sports medicine specialist Dr. Don McKenzie. He challenged, and ultimately disproved, prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper-body exercise. At the same time he spawned a phenomenon.

The boaters in his study discovered they were fitter, healthier and happier for the experience. They loved the camaraderie and support and felt they had regained control of their lives.

Teams sprang up first around the country and then around the world.

“The way it’s taken off is incredible,” says Peg Hurley.

2. Running Room Survivor Training

The Running Room, a Canadian specialty running and walking retailer of sporting goods, apparel and footwear, offers annual free training programs for women who have endured and overcome breast cancer to train for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure.

The 10-week course, which starts in July and leads up to the October run, is structured around breast-cancer survivors’ needs and uses running, walking, stretching and health education to provide tools for long-lasting fitness. It also provides an opportunity for participants to network with other women who have faced similar health challenges.

3. Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run For The Cure

The run marked its 25th anniversary this year o Oct. 5 as Canada's largest single-day, volunteer-led event dedicated to raising funds for breast cancer research, education, and awareness programs.

Founded by a small group of volunteers hoping to raise awareness and funds, the first event took place in Toronto in 1992, with some 1,500 participants raising $85,000. In 2013, 130,000 participants in 66 communities across Canada raised $27-million.

4. One New Thing

Big or small, gradual lifestyle changes can be beneficial. So the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is challenging women to get out of their comfort zones and try new things, to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Based on knowledge that just five to 10 per cent of breast cancers are genetic and that a third can be prevented, the CBCF has developed an interactive online tool to encourage women to learn more about breast health, create a personal plan to achieve that, be inspired by small changes made by other women and share their own insights.

5. Hockey Hair

This new fundraising initiative from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation is aimed at drawing in Canada’s iconic sport to raise funds and awareness. Its three components include:

Grow Your Flow – hockey players pledge to not chop their flow (hair) throughout the season;

Pink Your Flow – players style their flow pink;

Pink Your Rink – one game is dedicated to raise funds and awareness.

This year’s initiative raised $30,000 in two months, with 13 teams and 68 players participating.


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